Friday, February 6, 2004

Gay Marriage: The Race to be Different

From The Advocate’s interview with Presidential candidate General Wesley Clark, dated February 3 (the link is just to an excerpt of the interview):
But in the past, when the country was struggling with whether or not to allow people of different races to marry each other, for example, there wasn’t a question of calling it something other that marriage.

The way Colin Powell said it is that it’s like the decision President Truman made [to desegregate the military] and the decision that he was asked to make [to allow gay people to serve openly].  He said that there is something fundamentally different with sexual orientation.  I’m not sure that’s correct.  I’ll start with the legal rights.  Let’s let convention take its course as it works through.
So, is Powell correct?  Is there something fundamentally different between the “blacks in the military” and the “gays in the military” questions?  After some thought, I’m willing to say that yes, there is.

(What I recall Powell saying, several years ago, was that he saw no comparison whatsoever between the two issues.  Not just different but completely different.  At the time, I thought this was the typical “the Civil Rights struggle is a black thing, the rest of you go away” response, not unlike how the Holocaust has come to about Jews and only about Jews.  Today, I think that it is more like the way that only someone “inside” the gay side of things has the ability to see through the “gay window”, and thus we see the underlying similarities strongly while those “outside” focus on the surface comparisons, or on what their own “windows” focus on; this encompasses my earlier opinion, but broadens it.)

The difference seen by those outside the gay community is external vs. internal.  For black soldiers, you could clearly point to some soldiers and say “They may serve” and to others and say “They may not.”  You could thus also target the concerns about troop morale and soldiers working together and such, mostly with a “Just get over it” response.  Underlying the concern with gays in the military is that you (generally) can’t point out the gay soldiers from a distance; you have to get to know them first, and thus your first impressions may get twisted later.

Which isn’t to say that a “fundamental difference” is a good enough reason to bar the soldiers serving together, or the gay ones from serving at all.  After all, you can’t (generally) tell at first glance that someone is Jewish, or left-handed, or any number of other traits which might only become evident later.  It’s really the “squick factor” that is the problem, magnified by the fact that it may not be apparent early on.

So now back to the comparison of mixed-race marriages to same-sex ones.  Is there a similar “fundamental difference” there?  There isn’t along the external vs. internal/visual axis mentioned above: there is nothing “hidden” on the same-sex front when two men or two women get married; anyone can see that they are a same-sex couple right away (usually).  If anything, it is more obvious than on the mixed-race side of the coin, where some state laws identified someone as “colored” with mere fractions of non-white heritage and even less melanin than Michael Jackson, and thus precluded them from some marriage options.

A fundamental difference has to be fundamental: it has to be blatantly obvious to everyone who looks at the matter.  There is certainly such a difference between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, but that isn’t where this question lies.  Why interracial marriages are so obviously different from same-sex ones as to warrant different treatments remains unclear.

(And note that General Clark agreed.  If he’s not sure there’s a [valuable] fundamental difference between the black soldier question and the gay solider one, then he’s certain to be doubtful on the marriage issue.  And that’s a good thing.)

Updated on Decmeber 9, 2010

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